“A new study shows…” is an easy introduction to make about any amazing or incredible science fact. But many science stories end up as “fluff” pieces on the news, sexified by the media.
Science stories are not always presented in a way in which the public can critically consider the claims made. They’re filled with misinformation, lack of understanding about the topic and loads of opinion. As an added bonus, most media outlets will grab a person (not always a scientist) to make a comment. This is when you need to start using your thinking cap – who is the person being interviewed? If they conducted the study or are an expert in the area then it’s probably reasonable to trust their claims. But if you have a apiologist (bee scientist) going on about changes to the human brain caused by mobile phones, you might want to take it all with a grain of salt. Science is amazing but when science and opinion get mixed up, misinformation spreads like wildfire preventing the truth from getting through.
One of issues with the media is that they feel the need to include a variety of opinions on controversial topics, as they would for social and political issues. A complex science issue that is often clouded by the media is climate change (pun intended). Unfortunately, everyone and his dog has an opinion on this topic and tends to broadcast it, without necessarily considering scientific consensus.
One of the writers invited to the Sydney writer’s festival this year is Professor Naomi Oreskes, who knows a little bit about the topic. She is the Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California in San Diego and has followed the ‘climate change debate’ quite closely. I stumbled across this interview with her by Richard Fidler (ABC Local Radio):
For those of you who are time-poor (though even the first 5mins is good), the interview discusses methods the smoking industry and some climate change “skeptics” use to confuse the general public, the people behind these negative messages and how science fits into everything. Prof Oreskes describes the rise of the Main Challengers to global warming, scientists at the George C Marshall institute. Even though the “science was settled” by the 1990s, the founding members of the institute (and senior scientists in their field) were found not only to to be doubters of climate change but one had also been employed by a big tabacco company to dispute the claim that smoking causes cancer. The reason that these scientist acted in the way they did was because they believed that they could prevent nanny state intervention acting to decrease their liberty and freedom. You may not like this idea either but it does not mean the science is wrong.
Prof Oreskes stresses that science is about arguing a point using credible evidence but when the debate strays into personal attacks you know it has gone too far. Often scientists with ground breaking results find themselves swept up in a political storm and their logic and evidence is lost in the egos and misinformation that is in the media world.
Check out a clip from Jason Rietman’s movie “Thank you for smoking” (2005) that is included as audio in the interview:
So what do you think? Are you chocolate or vanilla?